Agony in Oedipus
In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus discovers through mental, physical and emotional suffering who he really is, which leads him to accept his indisputable fate
Many who have passed through the crucible of suffering will acknowledge that they have found themselves infinitely better from the experience – bitter though it may have been. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus discovers through mental, physical and emotional suffering who he really is, which leads him to accept his indisputable fate. As Oedipus grows in terrifying self-knowledge, he changes from a once prideful, heroic King, to a tyrant in denial toward the middle, and finally to a fearful, condemned man, humbled by his tragic fate. Oedipus’ mental anguish over whether or not he is Laius’ murderer, his physical torture (by gouging out his eyes) and, his emotional torment over Jocastas’ death and his children’s fate, cause his suffering but, in the end, leads to his self-realization.
Oedipus’s mental distress causes him a great deal of suffering but, in turn, leads to his self-realization. In the beginning, Oedipus is a very confident and valiant hero, with more than a sufficient amount of pride. Oedipus, as the male protagonist, finds himself constrained to rid Thebes of a horrible and deadly plague that will cease only if he finds King Louis’ murderer, “Does any man among you know/ who killed Laius son of Labdacus?” (14).Oedipus, in such an unrelenting effort to find the assassin discovers that he himself might be the murderer, “I say, the murderer of the man/ whose murder you pursue is you” (21).
Tiresias corners Oedipus and points to him as Louis’ murderer. With this, Oedipus is in rage and disbelief. As Oedipus places the burden onto Tiresias, accusing him of being the sinister murderer, he falls into a hollow pit of denial. Further on in the story, Oedipus learns pieces of information about the assassination of Laius. With this new information, Oedipus begins to see that he is connected to the murder in more ways than he thought. A growing paranoia grips Oedipus when Jocasta recounts the story of her husband’s murder, which leads the King to suspect his own past actions.
When pieces begin to merge and more evidence points towards him, Oedipus slowly begins to drive himself panic-stricken and mentally obsessed with whether or not he is Louis’ murderer, “Oh lost! Yes, surely lost! / self-damned, I think, just now and self-deceived” (42). Oedipus’ mental suffering is caused by his uncertainty of whether or not he himself is the murderer he seeks. This suffering ultimately leads to the much-anticipated discovery of his identity and past.
Similarly, Oedipus’ physical agony causes him much affliction but, eventually, leads to his understanding and acceptance of his fate and to his self-realization.
Oedipus learns the awful truth about his life when the shepherd confirms the truth about his parents. In turn, Oedipus is greatly disgusted with his actions of murder and incest, “A son of sin and sorrows / All incest-sealed / With the womb that bore me” (74). Oedipus becomes a man humbled to the pain and dejection of knowing the truth and, with overwhelming evidence, forces himself to admit his tragic destiny. “My birth all sprung revealed from those it never should, / Myself entwined with those I never could. / And I the killer of those I never would” (67). Yet the transformation of Oedipus is most clearly displayed when he gouges out his eyes. At this point, he has already seen his inescapable fate and chooses to make himself physically blind to it. “Hold them up
and rams the pins right through his eyes. / “Wicked, wicked eyes!” he gasps, / “You shall not see me nor my crime,” (70). Oedipus humbles himself in accepting his inescapable fate and tragic downfall and gouges out his own eyes. This causes him undesirable pain and suffering leading Oedipus to realize what kind of individual he is. This shows the audience that his self-realization did not occur unwillingly, nor did it occur for the worst, but because he was admirable in the end.
Lastly, Oedipus’ emotional torment over Jocastas’ death and his children’s heartbreaking fate causes him much suffering, which is necessary to achieve self-realization. Through his effort to purify the city of Thebes, Oedipus discovers that the dreadful Oracle has come true. In the process of killing his father and marrying his mother, Oedipus lost his throne, his children and the devotion of the people of Thebes, “Stop. What we’ve seen already is unbearable. / What further agony will you load on us?” (69). The civilians all suffer along with Oedipus because they have lost their greatest leader. Oedipus rushes into the palace to find his wife draping lifelessly from a noose. The oracle had destroyed her spirit. Oedipus endures much suffering from seeing Jocasta’s motionless body, hanging from her own self-hatred and guilt:
He shouts for all the barriers to be unbarred and he
displayed to all of Thebes, his father’s murderer,
his mother’s … no, a word to foul to say…
begging to be cast adrift, not rot at home
Oedipus, bloodied and sightless with agony, bares his distressed face as he pleads with Creon to exile him away. Oedipus feels ashamed and guilty in regards to all of his actions and accusations, which have done nothing more than proving him wrong. He can scarcely look at Creon and much less ask of him to consider his plight, “Ah! What words are left for me to him? / What title to sincerity and trust / when all my past behavior are proved so wrong?” (75).
Oedipus’ can no longer take care of his children but he wants them to be in safe and secure hands, for their lives will not be any easier, “He cannot see you now but still can weep / and ponder on those bitter days to come / which cruel consort with the world will prove.” (78). Oedipus suffers internally as Creon agrees to raise Oedipus’ children as if his own. Oedipus’ emotional state worsens as he leaves Thebes pronouncing a heartrending and brief farewell to his only children, “No, no, never! Don’t take them from me.” (80). Oedipus’ suffering purifies Thebes. When the guilt has been purged, the situation restores to health and balance, leading to redemption after his brutal suffering and long-awaited self-discovery.
In conclusion, Oedipus endures much suffering all the way through the play physically, emotionally, and mentally. Yet after all the pain, the anguish and the torment he is finally able to see who he is and who he once perceived himself to be. Oedipus learns valuable lessons during the unfolding of the prophecy and most importantly, when his much-warranted self-realization arrives, discovers his true self.
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